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04poets_600

Photo: New York Times
Fisher poet Dave Densmore, on his boat, wrote his first poem as a joke in the 1970s. Now he studies writing.

Jobs like commercial fishing can provide a lot of of time to think, and it’s amazing how thinking often leads to poetry. That is also true of experiences that are so hard to capture they must be addressed obliquely.

Poetic storytelling is alive and well in the fishing community, it seems. Consider this transcript of a National Public Radio (NPR) report, in which Melanie Sevcenko describes an annual fisher poet event.

“MELANIE SEVCENKO: Moe Bowstern named herself after the front and back end of a ship. She calls herself a fishing woman. And for her, writing poetry comes with the job.

“MOE BOWSTERN: Well, I mean, have you ever been fishing? …  It’s unbelievably boring. And so you just have to think of something else to do.

“SEVCENKO: Now retired from commercial fishing, Bowstern is one of dozens of fisher poets who have been meeting for their annual gathering in a Astoria, Ore. During the last weekend of February, the far-flung fisher people interpret the commercial fishing industry in prose, poetry and song. …

“Bowstern started fishing in Kodiak, Alaska, in the mid-’80s when women on commercial boats were scarce. Her zine shares a name with a popular brand of deck boots, XTRATUF. This piece is called ‘Things That Will Be Difficult.’

“BOWSTERN: ‘It will be hard, if you are a man, to understand why your female crewmate, who started out so friendly, is so silent now when you are only trying to help. It will be hard if you are a woman to go’ …

“SEVCENKO: The poetry onstage at FisherPoets touches on what Bowstern calls an incredibly difficult life.

“BOWSTERN: Not just because of the rigors of the actual physical experience of the life, but it’s just, how can you be a fisherman at a time of climate change? And, like, where are you going to position yourself with resource extraction?

“SEVCENKO: That’s something John Copp has written about. For 20 years, he ran operations in Bristol Bay in the Bering Sea. Multinational corporations want to mine gold and copper from the area nearby and have been angling to do so for years. His poem ‘Tsunami’ is inspired by his opposition to the proposed Pebble Mine. … Many commercial fishermen have been against the Pebble Mine because of the damage it could do to the biggest salmon run on the planet. Copp is retired and lives in Oregon now. But he’s still inspired to write by the natural beauty of Alaska. …

“This weekend, once again, the fisher poets will do what they’ve done for more than two decades — gather on piers, in cafes and in theaters to perform their poetry for grateful audiences in this seaside town. Bowstern feels lucky that people who’ve never even been fishing want to hear their stories.

“BOWSTERN: We’re participating in two traditions that have been going on. Like, storytelling is probably only a little bit older than fishing, you know? So we get to tell stories in our special, weird language. And people just can’t get enough of it.”

The NPR transcript is here, and there’s another good article at the New York Times, here. If you know people who fish and also write poetry, have them check out the Fisher Poets website, here.

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Photo: Lee Allen Photography
Dispensing poetry on prescription: Shropshire’s Emergency Poet, Deborah Alma.

Sometimes poetry can play a role in emotional healing. I think that’s because ordinary sentences often miss the mark but poetry is fluid enough to go where it’s needed. In the UK, a Shropshire poet is putting her faith in this art and opening a “poetry pharmacy.” She notes that a recent report shows “poetry sales were up by more than 12% in 2018, driven largely by younger buyers.”

Alison Flood writes at the Guardian, “Following in the hallowed footsteps of Milton, who wrote in 1671 that ‘apt words have power to swage / The tumours of a troubled mind / And are as balm to festered wounds,’ the poet Deborah Alma is preparing to open the UK’s first poetry pharmacy. Here, instead of sleeping pills and multivitamins, customers will be offered prescriptions of Derek Walcott and Elizabeth Bishop.

“Alma, who as the ‘Emergency Poet’ has prescribed poems as cures from the back of a 1970s ambulance for the last six years, is now setting up a permanent outlet in a shop at Bishop’s Castle in Shropshire. An old Edwardian ironmonger’s, it still has the original fixtures and fittings, and, together with her partner, the TS Eliot prize-shortlisted poet James Sheard, Alma is preparing to turn it into a haven ‘to help ease a variety of maladies with the soothing therapy of Poetry.’

“Dressed in a white coat and stethoscope, Alma says she was invited to appear as the Emergency Poet at ‘schools, hospitals and festivals all over the place, but I’m a middle-aged woman and I’m getting a bit old for driving around.’ …

“The [pharmacy’s] mortgage was approved [in January], and Alma is buzzing with plans for how the shop will be divided like a pharmacy ‘into areas for particular ailments.’ … The sections will be set up along the lines of a poetry anthology she edited in 2016, The Everyday Poet, which was split into poems ‘addressing areas of emotional need’ such as love, ageing, grief and hope. …

“ ‘I think probably more than any other art it speaks directly as though from one person to another,’ says Alma, who published her own first collection, Dirty Laundry, last year. ‘It’s intimate and it’s empathetic. It can be a prayer or a curse, or something just to hang on to.’ ”

More at the Guardian, here. I’m glad to know something more about Shropshire poets beyond “The Shropshire Lad,” which I know only by reputation.

Hat tip: Wisconsin poet Ronnie Hess on Facebook.

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janae

Photo: Poetry Out Loud
Janae Claxton of South Carolina is the 2018 Poetry Out Loud National Champion. A new survey suggests interest in poetry is growing in the United States.

I’ve been thinking about poetry lately. The team of family and friends keeping my sister company before her surgery was made up of people who enjoy poetry — reading, listening, memorizing, or reciting poetry. My sister herself knows a lot of poems by heart, and we all had fun quoting what we knew and looking up favorites on the web. Some of the poems were so moving, we had to stop and recover ourselves.

Poetry is the right thing in difficult times. And it seems my sister’s hospital team is not alone in feeling a need for it. A new survey shows that poetry reading is up nationwide.

Sunil Iyengar, National Endowment for the Arts director of research and analysis, writes at the NEA Art Works Blog, “Poetry reading in the United States has increased since five years previously. Nearly 12 percent (11.7 percent) of adults read poetry in the last year, according to new data from the National Endowment for the Arts’ 2017 Survey of Public Participation in the Arts (SPPA). That’s 28 million adults. As a share of the total U.S. adult population, this poetry readership is the highest on record over a 15-year period of conducting the SPPA, a research partnership with the U.S. Census Bureau. …

“Growth in poetry reading is seen across most demographic sub-groups (e.g., gender, age, race/ethnicity, and education level), but here are highlights:

• Young adults have increased their lead, among all age groups, as poetry readers. Among 18-24-year-olds, the poetry-reading rate more than doubled, to 17.5 percent in 2017, up from 8.2 percent in 2012. Among all age groups, 25-34-year-olds had the next highest rate of poetry-reading: 12.3 percent, up from 6.7 percent in 2012.

• Women also showed notable gains (14.5 percent in 2017, up from 8.0 percent in 2012). As in prior years, women accounted for more than 60 percent of all poetry-readers. Men’s poetry-reading rate grew from 5.2 percent in 2012 to 8.7 percent in 2017.

• Among racial/ethnic subgroups, African Americans (15.3 percent in 2017 up from 6.9 percent in 2012), Asian Americans (12.6 percent, up from 4.8 percent), and other non-white, non-Hispanic groups (13.5 percent, up from 4.7 percent) now read poetry at the highest rates. Furthermore, poetry-reading increased among Hispanics (9.7 percent, up from 4.9 percent) and non-Hispanic whites (11.4 percent, up from 7.2 percent).

• Adults with only some college education showed sharp increases in their poetry-reading rates.  Of those who attended but did not graduate from college, 13.0 percent read poetry in 2017, up from 6.6 percent in 2012. College graduates (15.2 percent, up from 8.7 percent) and adults with graduate or professional degrees (19.7 percent, up from 12.5 percent) also saw sizeable increases.

• Urban and rural residents read poetry at a comparable rate (11.8 percent of urban/metro and 11.2 percent of rural/non-metro residents). …

“More than 300,000 students from more than 2,300 high schools around the country participate in [the Poetry Out Loud] recitation competition. Last April, champions from 53 states and territories competed in the National Finals here in D.C. This year’s winner was high school senior Janae Claxton from the First Baptist School of Charleston, South Carolina. …

“Each year, the NEA Big Read supports community reading programs in approximately 75 communities nationwide, and includes poetry books such as [Muscogee (Creek) member] Joy Harjo’s How We Became Human and Adrian Matejka’s The Big Smoke in the available titles.”

Iyengar speculates that use of social media to promote poetry may explain part of the expanded interest. As for me, I think the obliqueness and beauty of good poetry help people to get their heads around big, impossible things.

More.

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Thank you for all the lovely things you have written. My sister has a long road ahead, but she is a strong person and is facing it well. Ms. Mighty Mouse.

I actually saw a Ms. Mighty Mouse sculpture on my walk and took a picture. Unlike her, my sister has both her arms and all her faculties.

I liked the Alice Walker poetry mural I saw, too, and will repeat the poem here as my sister loves poetry. In fact, the day before her surgery, the four of us who were gathered in her room had the best time quoting poetry at each other. It was a lot of fun.

The Nature of This Flower Is to Bloom

Rebellious. Living.
Against the Elemental Crush.
A Song of Color
Blooming
For Deserving Eyes.
Blooming Gloriously
For its Self.

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Photo: Brain Pickings
Kelli Anderson works on paper flowers for an animation illustrating Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Optimism.”

If you haven’t discovered Maria Popova’s blog Brain Pickings yet, I hope that you will. Not only do I got the very best ideas there for books to buy the grandchildren, I learn more than I can say about literature and science — and the intersection of the two.

In one recent post, Popova talks about asking a cut-paper artist to create a short animation to illustrate a Jane Hirshfield poem. I loved reading about the thought process behind this project.

“One spring morning in 2017, walking along a San Francisco sidewalk,” writes Popova, “I was arrested by the sight of a tiny weed poking through the crevice between a concrete wall and a chain link fence, boldly blooming in its yellow gramophone blossoms. I stood there marveling at its persistence, remembering Gwendolyn Brooks’s beautiful lines: ‘Wherever life can grow, it will. / It will sprout out, / and do the best it can.’

“Poetry was on my mind that day — I was in the final stages of composing the inaugural Universe in Verseand was on my way to meet the poet and ordained Buddhist Jane Hirshfield, whose work I had cherished for years and who had kindly contributed to the program her mighty protest poem about the silencing of science and nature.

“A year passed. When I invited Jane to participate in the second annual Universe in Verse, we chose her spare and lovely poem ‘Optimism’ for the show. … It instantly reminded me of the irrepressible yellow blossoms I had seen the day Jane and I first met. I had a sudden vision of bringing the poem to life in an animated stop-motion short film. …

“I enlisted the imaginative help of artist, designer, papercraft engineer, and my longtime collaborator Kelli Anderson — a wrester of wonder from ordinary objects and creator of the wondrous This Book Is a Planetarium. …

OPTIMISM
by Jane Hirshfield
[from Each Happiness Ringed by Lions]

More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam
returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous
tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on one side,
it turns in another. A blind intelligence, true.
But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers,
mitochondria, figs — all this resinous, unretractable earth. …

“Find more highlights from The Universe in Versehere.”

Read the rest of Popova’s post at Brain Pickings, here, where you can also enjoy the delightful animation made from cut paper. (I’m thinking 18th C botanical paper artist Mary Delany would have loved the ability to create an animation.)

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Photo: Ben Fractenberg
Jason Reynolds is a 
New York Times bestselling author, a National Book Award Honoree, a Kirkus Award winner, a Walter Dean Myers Award winner, an NAACP Image Award Winner, and the recipient of multiple Coretta Scott King honors.

Some children and teens who think they don’t like literature can really open up to it through poetry that is less intimidating. That’s the view of Jason Reynolds, author of the young adult novel Long Way Down, among others. Recently, he talked to PBS NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff about using poetry to capture the attention of reluctant readers.

“Woodruff: While Hollywood has figured out how to get boys to watch movies, the formula is trickier for getting boys to read, especially among those who have already expressed frustration and boredom with books.

“Reynolds: If you were to tell me that you were afraid of dogs, I wouldn’t then return to you with a pack of pit bulls. … What I might do is casually walk with you by one of those doggy day cares. The ones with the pups small enough to fit in the palm of your hand. Yippy little fur balls that get so excited, their tails wag the entire back halves of their bodies. The dogs that grin and want nothing more than to lap your skin with fervent affection. …

“So then, why, when it comes to young people who don’t like reading, who feel intimidated by literature, do we answer that cry with an onslaught of the very thing they fear? Why do we show up with a pack of pit bulls in the form of pages, and expect them to stop running away?

“Perhaps they haven’t found the right style of book because, sometimes it isn’t about subject matter, or voice, or point of view. …

“For some kids, those words [on the page] — the amount of words — is equivalent to a snarling dog. So, why not start with the less threatening, palm-sized pup in the window? In this case, poetry.

“Poetry has the ability to create entire moments with just a few choice words. The spacing and line breaks create rhythm, a helpful musicality, a natural flow. The separate stanzas aid in perpetuating a kind of incremental reading, one small chunk at a time.

“And the white space, for an intimidated reader, adds breathability to a seemingly suffocating task. …

“With the incredible selection of poetry and novels and verse from past to present, this is an opportune time to use them to chip away at bibliophobia. Less words on the page, more white space, without necessarily sacrificing the narrative elements.

“And once young people experience turning those pages, once the rush of comprehension and completion laps at their psyches for the first time, perhaps they will know they need not fear a thing created to love them, and for them to love.”

Read a 50-word poetic narrative that Reynolds wrote to draw in kids, here. See also this post on “poetry slams,” another way to get young people engaged in language arts.

My thanks to poet Ronnie Hess for posting the Reynolds piece on Facebook.

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Photo: eGuide Travel
The highlands of Papua, New Guinea, are among the isolated places that linguists search for speakers of dying languages.

I’ve blogged before about linguists and others who are trying to preserve languages spoken by only a few people. The belief is that there is intrinsic value in such endangered languages and that they are key to understanding cultures. Recently I saw that one group is focusing on a particular manifestation of rare languages — their poems.

Fiona Macdonald writes at the BBC about the Endangered Poetry Project.

” ‘They fly to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea and there they take a bus for three days and then they hike over a mountain and then they take a canoe and then they get to this little bay with 300 people,’ ” she reports, quoting Mandana Seyfeddinipur, head of the Endangered Languages Archive at London’s SOAS [School of Oriental and African Studies]. …

” They are ‘PhD students of 25 with a digital camera, a digital audio recorder and solar panels.’ …

“ ‘They live with the communities for months at a time, and develop social relationships, and talk to them and record them, and then they come back and they give me this SD card. … ‘The only record that we have of this language is in this tiny SD card.’ …

“The newly launched Endangered Poetry Project aims to tackle [language] loss at another level. ‘Languages are dying out at an astonishing rate: a language is being lost every two weeks,’ says the National Poetry Librarian Chris McCabe. ‘And each of those languages has a poetic tradition of some sort.’ …

“The project has issued a call-out to members of the public, asking for poems written in an endangered or vulnerable language. ‘In the first week, we’ve had over a dozen submissions in about 10 languages,’ says McCabe. ‘That includes poems in Breton, and poems in a dialect of Breton called Vannes. We’ve had a poem in Alsatian, and the Sardinian dialect Logudorese. We’re interested in these variations in language in different places as well, which can often be markedly different from the established language. …

” ‘You get a focus on place – in poems we’ve received from Sardinia, for example, there’s a focus on the mountain range there,’ says McCabe. ‘It shows you where people felt drawn to for inspiration in the landscape. Also, the style of a lot of Gaelic poems is very lyrical, and often uses repetition, a lot like a song. In that poetic tradition, you see how the division between poetry and music is quite slight – they often cross over between one and the other. The poetry tells us a lot about what kind of artistic experience people like, as well as what’s important in their geography.’ ”

Lots more here. Very interesting stuff.

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